January 09, 2006

Nias, Komodo, and "Kong"

I have yet to find three hours to devote to Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong, but I did catch the original 100-minute version on Turner Classic Movies over the holidays. I hadn't seen it in its entirety since I was a kid, but now I can see why Jackson has said it was the movie that inspired him to become a filmmaker. It's an extremely appealing adventure tale, despite the now-quaint special effects, occasionally clunky storytelling, and typical Hollywood exoticization of "primitive" lands.

Since one of my areas of research is Indonesia, my ears perked up when Carl Denham, the leader of the expedition, shows Captain Englehorn their destination on a chart, saying it is "way west of Sumatra." Englehorn then tells Denham, "I know the East Indies like my own hand, but I was never here." My interest was further piqued by the captain's early suspicion that "Kong" was "some Malay superstition, a god or a spirit or something." When they finally arrive at Skull Island, Englehorn says the speech of the natives "sounds something like the language the Nias Islanders speak."

Nias is an island off the west coast of northern Sumatra, most recently in the news for the heartbreaking devastation wrought by the one-two punch of the Dec. 2004 tsunami and the less-reported earthquake of Mar. 2005. The first language of most of the island's estimated 600,000 inhabitants is also called Nias (known locally as "Li Niha") and is related to the Batak languages of northern Sumatra and more distantly to Malay and other languages on the Sundic branch of the Austronesian family tree.

The film's depiction of the Skull Islanders is notoriously racist, with mostly African-American actors enlisted to prance around like generic savages, but I thought the specific references to Sumatra and Nias could mean that their linguistic interaction with Captain Englehorn might carry a shred of verisimilitude. From what I could catch, there was only the tiniest shred. When the chief makes an offer to trade six of his women for Ann Darrow (as a "gift for Kong"), Englehorn declines by saying "Tida, tida!" That seems to be modeled on Malay-Indonesian tidak /tidaʔ/, meaning 'no, not.' Also, when Englehorn buys time by telling the chief that they'll come back tomorrow, he says "dulu," which in Malay can mean 'for the time being' (as in tunggu dulu /tuŋgu dulu/ 'wait for now'). Other than that, nothing in the exchange between the chief and Englehorn sounds much like Malay or related languages.

But should we expect the dialogue to be anything but gibberish? A recent article by Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times looking back on the original Kong suggests otherwise:

To understand the 1933 version's success, you have to start with how close two of its key characters, director Denham (the irresistibly intense Robert Armstrong) and cameraman Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), were to producer-directors [Merrian C.] Cooper and [Ernest B.] Schoedsack. In fact, as related in Orville Goldner and George E. Turner's "The Making of King Kong," when Cooper hired his wife, tyro writer Ruth Rose, to do the final polish on the "Kong" script, he told her flatly, "Put us in it ... Give it the spirit of a real Cooper-Schoedsack expedition."

For with Cooper as the driving visionary and Schoedsack as the unflappable director-cameraman, these two were adventurers before they were filmmakers. As related in a new Cooper biography, "Living Dangerously" by Mark Cotta Vaz, the two had made a pair of successful ethnographic documentaries in faraway places — "Grass" in what was then Persia, "Chang" in Siam — that fully lived up to Cooper's celebrated determination to keep his films "distant, difficult and dangerous."

In fact, when Denham complains that critics are always bemoaning the lack of a love interest in his films, he's echoing what was actually said about the Cooper-Schoedsack films. And the language Rose created for the natives of Skull Island was based on the idiom of the Nias Islanders, near Sumatra, whom she and Cooper had visited. Fearful that disguised indecent language might sneak on-screen, the Production Code Administration reportedly insisted on a translation of all Skull Island dialogue before giving the film its approval.

(One correction to Turan's article: Ruth Rose was Schoedsack's wife, not Cooper's.)

I thought I'd look for this supposedly Nias-based dialogue online, and I found what purports to be a draft of the screenplay on Val Lewton's Whiskey Loose Tongue website. Sure enough, the Skullese dialogue is provided with "translations," presumably for the skittish Production Code Administration. A sampling:

Bado! Maka mini tau ansaro.

(Wait! Two warriors come with me.)

Watu! Tama di? Tama di?

(Stop! Who are you? Who are you?)
Englehorn: Tabe! Bala kum nono hi. Bala! Bala!

(Greeting! We are your friends. Friends! Friends!)
Chief: Bala reri! Tasko! Tasko!

(We don't want friends, Go! Get out!)
Englehorn: Vana di humya? Malem ani humya vana?

(What are you doing? What is that woman doing?)
Chief: Ani saba Kong!

(She is the bride of Kong!)

Sita! Malem! Malem ma pakeno!

(Look! The woman! The woman of gold!)

Malem ma pakeno! Kong wa bisa! Kow bisa para Kong!

(The woman of gold! Kong's gift! A gift for Kong.)

Dama, tebo malem na hi?

(Strangers, sell woman to us?)

Sani sita malem ati - kow dia malem ma pakeno.

(I will give six women like this for your woman of gold.)
Englehorn: Tida, tida! Malem ati rota na hi.

(No, no! Our woman stays with us.)

Dulu hi tego. Bala. Dulu.

(Tomorrow we come. Friends. Tomorrow.)

Most of the dialogue and "translation" accords with the 1932 novelization of the script adapted by Delos Lovelace (searchable on Amazon).

The reader is welcome to search for any vague correspondences between the screenplay and this Nias word list prepared by Robert Blust for the Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database. (Those familiar with Indonesian can also consult the Nias-Indonesian dictionary maintained here.) Suffice to say, whatever Ruth Rose Schoedsack used as the basis for Skullese, it surely wasn't Nias or any other related language. The word for "woman" in Nias is a-lawe, not malem; "who" is ha, not tama; "you (plural)" is yaʔami, not di; "we (exclusive)" is yaʔaga, not hi; "come" is möi, not tego. The Nias-Indonesian dictionary supplies some more examples: "six" is önö, not dia; "gold" is anaʔa, not pakeno; "tomorrow" is mahemolu, not dulu (hey, at least the final syllable for that one is right!).

I picked up the new biography of Merrian C. Cooper, Living Dangerously by Mark Cotta Vaz, to see if there was any mention of Cooper or the Schoedsacks going to Nias Island. There is a brief account of Cooper passing through the Toba Batak region of Sumatra on a round-the-world expedition with explorer Edward Salisbury, and another part describes the Schoedsacks' trip to Aceh on Sumatra's northernmost tip to shoot the orangutan movie Rango. But the only time Nias comes up is later in the book when stop-motion animator and hardcore Kong fan Ray Harryhausen recalls going to the island with his wife in search of the model for Skull Island:

Well, Nias Island actually exists, although they're not black but Asian people, and we thought we'd go there. We arrived early in the morning, in the fog, but there was no skull, no ancient wall. I stepped out on the pier and there was this native guy and I thought I'd try out Ruth Rose's language and I said, "Bala, bala Kong nna hee." And the native put his hands on his hips and said, "What are you talking about?" (Vaz, p. 407)

It turns out another Indonesian island probably had more of an influence on the making of Kong: Komodo, one of the Lesser Sunda Islands (which also include Flores, Sumba, and Timor). When Cooper was first formulating Kong in 1929-30, he contacted another adventurer named W. Douglas Burden. In 1926 Burden had led an expedition sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History to bring the first live Komodo dragons to the West. The following year Burden wrote a book about his expedition, Dragon Lizards of Komodo, describing how he and herpetologist F.J. Defosse were enchanted by the "lost world" of Komodo. Before leaving, Defosse told Burden, "I would like to bring my whole family and settle here, and be King of Komodo."

Cooper was inspired by Burden's story of "primeval monsters" on a faraway island and his description of how the creatures' spirits were broken once they were taken back to New York in captivity. (The two live Komodo dragons were brought to the Bronx Zoo and quickly died there.) Here is an excerpt from a 1964 letter from Burden to Cooper reminiscing about their conversations:

I remember, for example, that you were quite intrigued by my description of prehistoric Komodo Island and the dragon lizards that inhabited it. ... You especially liked the strength of words beginning with 'K,' such as Kodak, Kodiak Island, and Komodo. It was then, I believe, that you came up with the idea of Kong as a possible title for a gorilla picture. I told you that I liked very much the ring of the word...and I believe that it was a combination of the King of Komodo phrase in my book and your invention of the name Kong that led to the title you used much later on, King Kong. (Vaz, p. 193)

In response to Burden's letter, Cooper wrote, "Everything you say is right on the nose." He did add that he conceived of a "Giant Gorilla" story before reading Dragon Lizards of Komodo, which reminded Cooper of his own expedition to the Andaman Islands and the giant lizards he saw there. But at least we know where the K in Kong came from!

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at January 9, 2006 01:14 AM